Transition Q & A: Chris Humphrey

Chris Humphrey earned his PhD in medieval studies from the University of York. He’s currently a project manager at Triodos Bank. Find him online at Jobs on Toast, his website of “positive & practical support for PhD careers outside academia,” and follow him on Twitter @ChrisHumphrey.

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

I had a text-book path through academia, studying English as an undergraduate, cultural studies as a masters, and interdisciplinary medieval studies for my PhD. After that I held a 3 year postdoc position at the University of York. During those 3 years I applied for many academic lecturing posts in the UK and had many interviews, without receiving a job offer. My postdoc was due to end in September 2000 and after a paid postdoc I was unwilling to take a salary cut and just do hourly-paid teaching whilst continuing an academic job search. I had a young daughter at that point too. Basically I was unwilling to become underemployed just to stay in the academic job game.

So I put together a Plan B, which involved searching for work in what was then the emerging field of e-learning and web-based training. I’d been interested in technology for a long time and the internet was really beginning to open up. I thought that some experience of e-learning could help me to keep my academic options open too. When I got my 5th academic interview rejection phone call I knew there would be no more posts that year, so I put my plan B into action! Within a matter of months I was offered a post at a startup e-learning company, on a good salary and with lots of opportunities to develop my skills. As soon as I started working in business I knew that there was no way back.

What was your first post-PhD job?

My first post-PhD job was working as a content analyst for an e-learning startup. With hindsight it was a good role for making the transition out of academia. At my interview I presented myself as a professional educator with an interest in technology, and as someone who was entrepreneurial, having funded my own research by winning several research grants. I gave examples of how I thought e-learning could be used in the future, for instance to show people how to do common household tasks such as changing the spark plugs on your car (this was back in 2000—this has actually come true with YouTube!). My interviewers saw the continuities in my CV and my story, were interested in someone who was looking for a new challenge, and gave me the job.

The main part of the job involved developing content for e-learning programmes for corporate customers like Vodafone and Hewlett Packard. I had to quickly learn about telecoms billing systems and the capabilities of LaserJet printers! At the company we always tried to make our e-learning programmes fun, for instance, by creating an interactive online town which learners could explore, rather than just dry multi-choice questions. Unfortunately in 2002 the company went into liquidation and I was made redundant. But I had acquired a lot of new skills and experience in technology and training, and found that I enjoyed working as part of a creative team to develop new products and services for customers.

What do you do now?

Today I work for a fantastic ethical and sustainable bank called Triodos Bank. I was made redundant in July 2011 and about a fortnight later I saw that Triodos was advertising for a temporary project manager. So I applied for the role and got the job, and within a few months I was taken on permanently. Working for an ethical and sustainable bank really fits with my personal values of doing whatever I can to make the world a better place—the bank only lends the savers’ money to companies and charities which have a positive environmental, social and cultural impact on the world. Triodos doesn’t offer accounts or loans to any companies involved in fossil fuel extraction, gambling, tobacco, or pornography. Especially in the light of the 2008 banking crisis and the continuing problems in the financial sector in the UK, it’s really great to feel that I’m helping to push forward an alternative and more sustainable model of banking.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

As a project manager I’m responsible for planning and delivering projects for the bank, making sure everything goes smoothly and within time and budget. These projects can range from online web-forms to enable customers to apply for new accounts online, through to running a share offer or managing the installation of new equipment and software. I have 3-6 projects on the go at any one time.

I use a project management methodology called PRINCE2, which helps you to divide a big set of tasks into separate stages, so that you can focus on completing each stage, whether that is start-up, delivery or closedown. I use Microsoft Project too, but at the end of the day a lot of my work involves talking face-to-face with my project teams and the Heads of Departments who I work for. Good written and oral communication, and good people skills, are at the heart of good project management!

So in a typical day I’ll chair several project meetings to make sure that the work is on track for live projects. I will also be working on business cases for new projects that haven’t yet started, as well as writing closedown reports for projects that have finished!

What most surprises you about your job?

As a good project manager there are absolutely no surprises! No seriously it is such a great feeling to hear about all the good work the bank is doing, whether that is raising funds to help 700 homeless people get off the streets in London, or to help unemployed people and ex-offenders to learn new skills in Bristol. The work I do as a project manager indirectly supports all that, and it’s so thrilling to hear testimonies from customers or people who have benefitted from interventions supported by the bank. In these difficult financial times it can be easy to overlook the really positive things that are happening in the world, and so it’s a nice surprise to be reminded of them.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

It’s always fun starting up a project—you can’t beat the excitement and energy of getting started with something new that will fix a problem or create a new opportunity! That is really exciting. I also like working one-to-one with people, giving them support and encouragement and then seeing them go on to excel at something—that is really rewarding.

What would you change about it if you could?

I can’t really think of anything to change about my job. If I could change one thing it would be to raise public awareness of the power of their money and its role in shaping a greener future. I’ve come to appreciate that as consumers we all have the power to make a positive difference—for instance by consciously choosing to buy local, sustainable goods and services, such as organic food and green energy. This purchasing power also applies to financial services such as savings and pensions—does that higher rate of interest you’re enjoying on your savings come at the expense of people or the planet? I would encourage everyone to think carefully about where their money is invested, as it’s just as important as other ways of greening one’s lifestyle. To find out more about sustainable financial institutions in the country where you live, you can check out Global Alliance.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

As the bank grows it will take more effort to coordinate all the work that’s going on, and I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues in branches in other countries to deliver group-wide projects.

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?

My top piece of advice is to treat the non-academic job search as if you are a professional who is simply changing sectors and looking for a new job and a new challenge. Many PhDs or others who quit grad school feel that they have hit a wall, and the discontinuity between higher education and business seems stark and daunting. While I appreciate that people feel this way, it’s absolutely not the way to start off with a job search outside academia! Rather, you should be looking for as much continuity as you can to drive forward your job search. I don’t mean academic subject continuities, but rather continuities in terms of skills, your personal story, commonality of purpose with your target employers, and your wider interests.

So my advice is: market yourself as a professional X—fill in the X yourself—whether it be a writer, educator, project manager, people manager, analyst, technologist—and you will find that there are lots of opportunities out there for these roles. You want to be talking to employers and interviewers about how you can help them in the future, and not dwelling on your own past.

5 Replies to “Transition Q & A: Chris Humphrey”

  1. This is a question for Chris- – I don’t know if your interviewees do follow-up questions, but I hope so! I’ve always been curious why project management requires the use of software. This seems like it takes an activity and makes it that much more complicated. Didn’t we PhDs manage a project – the dissertation – without such software? I can see how task lists, etc., are helpful, but I don’t quite understand why entire software programs are developed around this. Any clarification would be helpful. Thanks!

    1. Hi I’m pleased to answer follow-up questions! Project management software is very useful in a couple of ways.

      The main benefit is that when you change one variable in a project plan, all the other dependent variables are automatically updated (like in a spreadsheet). So for instance if you have a project with five tasks, and each task depends on the previous one being completed, and each task takes 10 working days, then the whole project will be complete in 50 days. You enter all this data into the software and see a visual picture of your project. Once you enter the start date, all of the dates for all of the tasks to start and end are calculated.

      If you were now to find out that the second task takes 12 days instead of 10, you can just increase the duration of that task, and the software will automatically update the dates for subsequent tasks and push out the end-date for you by 2 days.

      It sounds simple enough but this is really important for determining the ‘critical path’ in a project i.e. the tasks that cannot slip without impacting the delivery date. Other tasks may be non-critical and can slip a few days without making the whole project late. For instance, you can’t start building the walls of a new house until the foundations are complete.

      You can also calculate resource constraints. For instance when building a house you can be decorating the rooms at the same time as laying the lawn. If it takes 10 days to decorate all the rooms, and 3 days to lay the lawn, then in theory even if it rains and causes the lawn-layers to take an extra 2 days to lay the lawn, it won’t affect when you can finish decorating all the rooms. However if you had only budgeted to pay for 13 days of labour in total for decorating and lawns (10+3), you would now have to find 2 more days of lawn help from somewhere! The software will show your budget and resource in deficit once you update the lawn task to 5 days.

      I hope this explanation helps! I would definitely recommend finding a free sample and teaching yourself how to use project software.

  2. This is a question for Chris. I know that lots of project managers often use Prince2 and it’s very popular in the UK but not so popular in other countries. What do you think of it? Would you recommend people learning it especially so that they could apply it to what they’ve learned during their PhD and what they might need to improve post PhD?

  3. Hi Anthea, sorry to take so long to reply! I think PRINCE2 is a great framework for managing projects, mainly because it gives you a common, industry-standard set of principles and processes for project work. This means that when you engage with a new client for instance, or with new suppliers, everyone has a common reference point – they know what to produce when you ask for a highlight report for example, or a project brief. It doesn’t sound like much, but collaborating with a bunch of new people on something that’s never been done before is hard enough in itself, and anything that can make it easier, like PRINCE2, is welcome!

    I would definitely recommend reading some books about project management while undertaking a PhD, because you can learn some principles that can make you more efficient, thereby saving you time and money when you finish sooner. If you want to earn a qualification while studying for your PhD, take a look at what the APM (www.apm.org.uk) or PMI offer (www.pmi.org), or check out your local college, for a certificate or diploma in project management. A PRINCE2 qualification is quite expensive, and in my opinion is best acquired at the same time as working on a larger project involving multiple stakeholders, so that you can apply the principles in practice and learn from your mistakes.

    1. Thank you for your reply and I must apologize for not having responded. Thank you for letting me know what you think about Prince 2. I’ve got to admit that I’ve taken studied and taken the exam…during my PhD. It was really hard since its a different set of vocabulary but it really does teach you the skills of project management. I learned a fair amount and it did help me manage my own project. It’s interesting to hear that you think that it’s a good idea. I remember that a number of my PhD colleagues poohed poohed it the time but I’ve noticed since graduating that several of my colleagues are concerned that they ought to have done some project management course.

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